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View from San Francisco: San Francisco may be suffering because of the collapse of the e-industry, but its ambitious infrastructure projects are a fair bid to make it the most civilized city on the US Pacific Coast.

What a difference a year makes. Last year San Francisco was experiencing all the irrational exuberance of Silicon Valley's Internet boom. The Bay Area economy epitomized the good times of the Clinton-era policies promoting globalization and high technology. The local real-estate market was white-hot; commercial vacancy rates in the city were less than 1 per cent; freeways were jammed with dot.com commuters from 5am onwards and you had to book reservations at the smartest restaurants months in advance. Now that the Internet bubble has burst and following the tragic events of 11 September, the city is returning to normal and a more sober reality. Commercial vacancy rates have risen to 25 per cent, thousands of former Internet workers are unemployed, restaurants throughout the city have closed and you can zip along the freeways and park practically anywhere. There is a sense of the end of an era.

Both the boom and its inevitable bust have been enormously disruptive to the social and economic life of the city. The spike in rents caused the displacement of thousands of small businesses and the transformation of San Francisco's older working-class neighbourhoods such as SOMA, Potrero Hill and the Mission District through gentrification and the construction of thousands of live/work lofts. The Planning Code, as a way of retaining blue-collar artists, permitted the construction of high-density loft units within mixed-use, formerly industrial neighbourhoods, but because of house price inflation they are more likely to be inhabited by hip Internet entrepreneurs. Some of the new loft projects have been quite spectacular contributing to the dynamism of the context they were built in, including those by San Francisco architects Stanley Saitowitz and Jim Jennings. San Francisco became the most expensive city in the US, and the shortage of affordable housing created a homeless population of nearly 10 000 (inciden tally almost the same number of homeless people as during the Great Depression in the '30s). It will take some time for the full impact of the bust to sink in. In the Financial District and SOMA there are at least 3.5 million square feet of office space still under construction, having been approved and started while the going was good. Stopping projects like these is like trying to slow down an oil-tanker.

The building I worked in until recently mirrored the whole saga. A 1925 era concrete-framed warehouse building near the Transbay Terminal, with no air-conditioning, one slow elevator and lousy lavatories, it was full of architects, graphic artists and landscape designers paying rents at less than $1 per square foot. With the boom, rents zoomed up to $7 sq ft and all the small design firms were kicked out and replaced with dot.com start-up companies. Now, after the bust, the building is half empty, rents are down to $2 sq ft and the largest tenant on the second floor is a company called Bankruptcy Services Inc.

In the 12 years since the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, San Francisco has undergone an astonishing transformation, rivalling the reconstruction after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Huge amounts of public investment have been spent on new museums, public buildings, seismic retrofitting and improvements to the transportation infrastructure. The '90s was an era of growth and prosperity rivalling the first Gold Rush of 1849. Unlike previous booms, this one produced some important investment in the region's infrastructure and many new public buildings. Seismic retrofitting of public buildings started the economic resurgence with over $2.4 billion being spent on the renovation of the Beaux Arts era Civic Center alone.

Star out-of-town architects have designed many of the new projects still in the design stages, so that San Francisco will have a selection of new cultural buildings by the usual suspects. Herzog and De Meuron for the new DeYoung Museum and Renzo Piano for the reconstruction of the Academy of Sciences, both in Golden Gate Park. Daniel Libeskind and Ricardo Legorreta will contribute to the Yerba Buena Gardens architectural theme park with their Jewish and Mexican Art Museums.

Waterfront restored

One of the greatest recent achievements has been the restoration of the city's waterfront. The former double-decked elevated Embarcadero Freeway, which was built in the late 1950s and disfigured the city's access to the Bay, was badly damaged in the 1989 earthquake and has been torn down to be replaced with a fine boulevard, lined with stately rows of Canary Island palm trees. Contrary to all the worst fears of the traffic experts, the removal of the freeway did not cause gridlock or back-ups across the Bay, but has dispersed traffic easily along surface streets. Most importantly it has allowed the city to regain its waterfront and given access to the splendid Ferry Building and pier buildings. Along the new Embarcadero are two new light-rail lines, which expand the city's already extensive network: the expansion of the Market Street F Line heading north to Fisherman's Wharf which uses historic 1930s streamline era streetcars; the other heading south running the sleek new Italian Breda cars to Pac Bell Park l ocated at China Basin. Like many American cities in the '90s, San Francisco built a new downtown ballpark. Pac Bell Park is the new brick-clad retro-styled, privately financed baseball stadium, designed by HOK Sports. It is superbly sited within walking distance of Downtown and the nearby Caltrain Depot and faces the Bay so that players can hit a homerun into the water.

At the foot of Market Street, the 100 year old Ferry Building is being renovated by the San Francisco firm of SMWM to once more become the gateway to the city with the increased use of high-speed ferries criss-crossing the Bay. The restored landmark building will contain offices and restaurants and be home to a popular farmer's market. A new plaza designed by ROMA Design Group terminates Market Street and acts as an appropriate forecourt to the Ferry Building.

Further along the northern waterfront, the former Crissy Field airstrip, within the Presidio National Park near the Golden Gate Bridge, has become the city's latest outdoor amenity. Designed by the local firm of George Hargreaves & Associates, it consists of a new two-mile long esplanade, offering unparalleled views of the Bridge and the Bay. The design combines natural features and man-made forms with rows of newly planted trees and chevron-shaped mounds. It enhances the presence of many former military buildings, including the Gorbachev Foundation, a group of buildings donated by the US Government as a future peace forum. A new salt-water tidal lagoon has been created as well as the restoration of sand dunes, a vast new meadow and biking and walking trails.

Infrastructure burgeons

Next year will see the start of the five-year $3billion replacement of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. The existing prosaic looking cantilever design span, which partially collapsed in 1989, will be replaced with a new suspension bridge with a single tower intended to match the design of the double suspension western span between Yerba ,Buena Island and the city. The structural design is by TY Lin International with architectural design by Donald MacDonald, San Francisco. The new span has an innovative structural system incorporating a 'self-anchoring system' for attaching the cables to the long causeway from Oakland.

Other future transportation improvements still in the planning stages include the proposed new Transbay Terminal with a new inter-modal transportation centre designed by SMWM/ Richard Rogers Partnership with Ove Arup Engineers. The new terminal will replace the original Interurban train and later bus facility, built when the Bay Bridge was first opened in 1937, with a new five-level transit hub containing three levels of naturally ventilated bus platforms, above grade, and a new train station for an extension of the Caltrain line from SanJose and a future new transbay tunnel under the Bay to the proposed High Speed Rail line to Sacramento and Los Angeles. The design, which is in its concept stages, promises to be one of the great transportation buildings in North America and a dramatic element in the dense urban fabric of Downtown. It will be part of an ambitious redevelopment programme to build both new office buildings in the vicinity, but also to house as many as 15 000 people close to transit and all the amenities of this part of San Francisco.

At San Francisco International Airport, the new International Terminal has recently opened, completing almost forty years of airport construction. A newly opened museum at the airport shows a photograph of the original 1954 terminal with three DC-3 airplanes and a dozen taxis parked outside. The new terminal will permit the airport to handle 35 million passengers a year, more than California's entire population. The new building designed by Craig Hartman of the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill/Del Campo Maru/ Michael Willis reads as an elegant gateway to the world, its soaring gull-winged roof covering the great departure hall and bridging over the roadways leading in and out of the airport. Sun-shading screens and fitted glass protect the great west-facing window wall from excessive heat and sun. Next year the long-awaited BART rail extension from Downtown will be complete, connecting the airport with the rest of the Bay Area.

As the Bay Area enters a new era it will have a legacy of significant new public buildings of a very high standard to use and enjoy. Now is the time to prepare for future periods of growth and innovation, and to address some of the unmet social needs particularly housing and public transit-oriented development to avoid the waste and blight of suburban sprawl.

RELATED ARTICLE: February

For all he world's troubles and the increasingly frenetic hours that many have to work, leisure is still one of our biggest industries, and the February issue of the AR takes a wide-ranging view over buildings as difference as museums and sports stadiums, travel terminals and landscape interpretation centres. The latter range from the amazing outdoor escalators and stairs by Lapena & Torres which link the upper and lower levels of the historic city of Toledo in Spain, to the national park centre by Gudmundur Jonsson in the awesome glacier riven mountain mass of the Hardangervidda in central Norway. Among museums will be much awaited Folk Art Museum in New York by Williams & Tsien and the national gallery at Vaduz in Liechteonstein by Kerez and Morger. Degelo. Sports buildings to be shown will include Herault & Arnod's shining silver ice rink at Grenable.

Also in the issue will be a report on the recently judged Graphisoft competition for electronic visulization of imaginary architecture. In each issue, we look at a particular house, and the one in February will be at Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, where the architects, Luis and Alvaro Fernandez de Cordova Landivar, have responded with elegance to the Amazonian climate and to materials found on site. And of course, we that have our usual spicing of interior Design. Delight, View, Books and Design Review, Get this and 11 other stimulating and wide-ranging issues at a discount by completing the enclosed subscrption form.
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Author:Ellis, John
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Words:1848
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